Science Could Be Hazardous to Your Health (55+)

“Medicine,” said William Osler, “is an art underpinned by science.” Not only is medicine an inexact science, it can be either descriptive or prescriptive. The former, which explains how the body works, is a complicated and dynamic aspect of medicine, with roots deep in history. The latter is more recent and stems from institutional and commercial concerns. It tells us what to do, what to eat and how to be, and it worries us about things we can’t change. This is the science that could be hazardous to your health.

We will explore descriptive aspects of the science of medicine, learning how to decipher the complexities of physiology. We’ll investigate the prescriptive aspect too, thinking critically about the language, concepts, history and statistical phrasing behind it, and trying to separate fact from fiction.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe the difference between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ medical science
  • Give examples illustrating how our understanding of human physiology has evolved over time
  • Discuss how beliefs, biases and cultural constructs affect our understanding of health and disease
  • Critique publicly available health information more effectively

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


As the course is interdisciplinary, and few concepts in physiology lend themselves to clean boundaries, the following breakdown is a general guide to course content. We will begin with an analysis of clinical trials and some simple statistics (no math required). From there we will work backwards towards the early 20th century and beyond, examining how the physical body and its workings were gradually understood, mostly as the laboratory and scientific thinking evolved. Inevitably, commercial interests pushed some areas ahead of others:

  • Endocrinology/hormones
  • Immunology – germs and infections to auto-immune conditions
  • Anatomy and the workings of the heart, liver and lungs
  • Genetics, from Mendel to
  • Food, metabolism (or Fear of Fat – and salt and sugar)
  • The Great Vitamin Hoax

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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